Exploring Our World: People, Places, and Cultures

Chapter 8: History and Cultures of Latin America

Chapter Overviews

Early peoples of Latin America include the Olmec of southern Mexico, the Maya of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and the Inca of South America. The arrival of the Europeans in the 1400 and 1500s transformed the populations of these lands; the explorers settled the land, setting up colonial governments, and spreading Christianity among the Native Americans. They also used Native Americans as workers to grow cash crops. Eventually, European landowners brought enslaved Africans for labor.

Most Latin American countries were ruled by Spain or Portugal from the 1500s to the 1800s. Countries in Latin America fought for independence after two centuries of European rule. Many Latin American nations hoped their countries would become stable democracies with prosperous economies. Obstacles arose, however, including conflict over the role of religion in their society, boundary lines, tensions between the rich and poor, and leaders who often ruled as dictators. Difficult economic and political reforms in the 1980s helped strengthen many Latin American countries, but these changes were often harsh and turned many Latin Americans against dictators. During the 1990s, democratic movements succeeded in several countries.

Latin America has a high population growth rate, but resources are limited in many areas. Most people live in the moderate climates found along the coasts of South America or in the Mexico and Central America region. Many people move to the cities to find work. Today most Latin Americans live in growing cities. In South America, about 80 percent of people live in cities, but in Central America and the Caribbean, only about 65 percent are urban dwellers.

Latin America’s people include Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians, and mixtures of these groups. Spanish is the most widely spoken language in Latin America, although Brazilians mostly speak Portuguese. Family life and religion are important to most Latin Americans. The food, arts, holidays, and celebrations in each country blend the traditions of its diverse peoples.

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